INDIANAPOLIS – As much as he’s trying to avoid it, Sunday’s NCAA tournament game against Michigan will be meaningful for Jaylen Johnson.
The Louisville junior forward knows the Wolverines never were passionate about him during his standout career at Ypsilanti Community High. There wasn’t a serious scholarship offer, even though Johnson was among the state’s top-ranked players.
Johnson, instead, signed with Louisville, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Regional. The Cardinals will play No. 7 seed U-M in Sunday’s second round at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (12:10 p.m., CBS).
“I’m not really worried about the story behind the game, I’m just worried about winning as a team,” said the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Johnson, Louisville’s starting power forward. “I’m from Michigan, but that’s not my team.”
Johnson took several unofficial visits to nearby Ann Arbor, including pick-up ball with the Wolverines. He tried to hold his own with Mitch McGary and Tim Hardaway Jr.
But the formal offer didn’t materialize like he wanted. The closest he came to U-M was when he was about to commit to Louisville and Michigan assistant Bacari Alexander told him Michigan would be around if it didn’t work out.
Johnson laughed about the story on Saturday, insisting that, more than three years later, it didn’t matter. He chose Louisville (over Michigan State and others) because it wanted him, and the Cardinals were coming off the national championship win over the Wolverines.
Before that, though, he was invested in the home schools. Johnson may have leaned a little bit to MSU, but when U-M reached the 2013 national title game, his interest spiked in the Wolverines. Louisville wasn’t in the picture at that time.
“Having an opportunity to play for a Hall of Fame coach like Rick Pitino was always the front thought,”Johnson said. “I felt I had the best opportunity here to go where I wanted to go (in the future).”
Looking across the court Sunday, he’ll see a familiar face in Michigan senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. With Walton only a year older, the two became friends at a young age and have remained connected over the years.
“Watching him play as a young kid, he was always one of the best players in the state,” Johnson recalled. “I’m talking about in middle school, elementary school, like that. We started being competitors and playing against each other. He played for Michigan Mustangs, I played for Dorian’s Pride. We always played against each other, we were cool like that.”
Now, they mostly communicate on Instagram, but there’s a bond. Johnson always expected a shot to play big-time basketball. His mother was a talented player at Wisconsin. He always had the height, and was able to measure himself against the state’s best players.
After starting slow as a freshman behind future pro Montrezl Harrell, it took Johnson time to emerge for the Cardinals. His primary role is as a rebounder for the Cardinals, though he averages 8.0 points and 5.8 boards.
“Where he’s come from freshman year to now has just been incredible,” said Louisville assistant coach David Padgett. “His work ethic has improved immensely, he got himself in really good shape last offseason and it showed this year on the court. … He’s started for us most of the season and had some incredible games for us.”